Pastoral Perspectives

A Bethel Encounter

Two Saturdays ago, I attended the 130th anniversary celebration of Bethel Presbyterian Church. Being a Chinese church, you would expect the service to be conducted differently compared to our 20th anniversary celebration held last year. So here I found myself putting on the minister’s robe and queuing up with the rest of the ministers and elders outside the sanctuary, with some under the hot sun as we waited for the service to begin with the traditional processional march. And when the service was over, we were also the first to go under the setting sun and wait for the rest to make their way out and join us for the traditional photo shoot before we were ushered to a separate location for the traditional dinner.

Before you think that I am complaining here, let me say that it was through such acts that I felt honoured by the respect shown to ministers and elders for the offices they hold. For it is quite normal for people these days and especially after all that had happened in this land over the past few years to be critical or suspicious of office holders, whether religious or secular. And this applies also to preachers who stand at the pulpit to deliver God’s messages. We live in a generation where a majority of the laity are well educated and many are highly qualified professionals. So some may screen the preachers for charisma and critique their grammar and speaking skill while others may measure them against certain criteria, just as they would to other professionals. So if the preachers fail to meet certain expectations of theirs, they have in their eyes failed to make the cut.  You may disagree with me but having served for a numbers of years, I do believe I have a valid point here. Anyhow these thoughts were swirling in my mind as I sat in the sanctuary of Bethel that day, witnessing God’s faithfulness and grace through the message preached and the testimonies shared. So allow me to share my reflections that came out of it.

One of our Presbyterian distinctiveness is the centrality of the Word. So Scripture has authority over tradition, experience or reason and therefore the pulpit takes central place in our sanctuary and preaching the centre focus of our service. Yet I believe many of us understand this sense of authority quite differently. Some may accord authority to the preacher such that even if he is merely talking nice stories, sharing wonderful experiences or giving human reasons, they would abide with him because he is God’s messenger after all. So he has authority by virtue of the office he holds and some are encouraged by what he has said. Others may accord authority to the Word such that unless the preacher exposits the Word faithfully and fearfully, they cannot agree that God has truly spoken. And so the preacher lacks authority and some are discouraged because of what he has not said. I suppose you can always find a good mix of such people in any churches today. Do any of these describe you? What about me?

My training as a preacher taught me that unless I preach the Word in season and out of season, I have no business and authority as God’s messenger to stand before his people. On the contrary, I hold myself accountable before him for misusing the pulpit and abusing my office. So expository preaching of the Word is my God-given responsibility and what I would expect also from fellow preachers. This is my personal conviction. But what is expository preaching? It’s the style that divides us. Some understand it rather rigidly, i.e. it is explaining, validating and applying a passage of text systematically or in the good old fashion verse by verse way. Some understand it rather fluidly, i.e. as long as the sermon is based on truths exposited from Scripture, it is expository even if it is crafted and delivered in some other creative ways.

Well, I began life as a young Christian with a rigid understanding and struggled whenever a preacher did otherwise. But after all these years, I am open to other ways of preaching the Word faithfully so that many may be able to understand God’s truths for their time and generation. This is also my personal goal though it is still not my cup of tea. So it is no longer about how others have to subscribe to my style of preaching, whether they like it or not, simply because I am God’s messenger but how I should work on my style to reach out to the people whom God puts in my path, whether I like it or not, because it is my duty as his messenger to do so. Only then can I expect my preaching to have authority over people and for them to respect me and the office I hold. And likewise, I should also accommodate other preachers who are different in styles but expository in substance. What about you?

Finally I have to confess that I went to Bethel as a minister only because I am the Synod Stated Clerk. But I found myself greatly ministered by the whole proceeding and I believe it is true also of those who were present that day. I ask myself why and I believe it was so because the service was done in an orderly manner when everyone played their part accordingly, whether it was to stand under the hot sun or be seated before the processional march. To put it simply, everyone came together as one body and in one spirit before a holy God who is the Audience and the One who blesses such that his worshippers were blessed that day. Therefore I have also learned that if I should go away from a service not feeling ministered but angry, discouraged or disappointed for whatever reasons, I should ask myself first if the One Audience had been pleased with my participation and contribution before I look elsewhere. So here’s my Bethel Encounter and may the good Lord bless you on this Synod Sunday.

Pastor Ronnie Ang

July 14, 2013